29 July 2010

On Tuesday 10 August FACT will be screening your choice of the greatest English-language film of all time. You can cast your vote here where we have also provided a few suggestions.

 

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“Ever see Casablanca?” asks Tommy Lee Jones of Will Smith in 1997’s Men in Black. He’s explaining the Earth’s policy towards extra-terrestrial immigration, and why the authorities are willing to accept inter-galactic asylum seekers;  “Same thing, just no Nazi’s”.

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Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz) is loved primarily because Humphrey Bogart’s immortal Rick (the role he is perhaps best remembered for) represents what is best about the human condition; the capacity of mankind for self-sacrifice, especially when faced by pure evil.

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Adapted from a play (Everybody Comes To Rick’s), the script emerged as America’s involvement in the Second World War escalated following Pearl Harbour. The film can be read as an allegory about the America’s growing involvement in world politics, and it’s turn away from the generations-old Monroe Doctrine, which stated that the United States should not involve itself in the politics of European states.

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Beginning as an isolationist expatriate businessman (though one with a previous history of fighting Fascism in Spain), Humphrey Bogart’s ‘gin-joint’ owner is drawn into the murky world of espionage by a chance encounter with Peter Lorre’s conniving Ugarte, from whom he receives two letters. These letters promise safe passage through Nazi-occupied Europe for whoever bears them (an extremely unlikely plot device). Rick’s comfortable life is thrown further into turmoil by the arrival of an old flame (Ingrid Bergman), and he is subsequently forced to choose between personal happiness and the ‘doing the right thing’, which in this case involves helping Bergman escape with her new lover, a French Resistance leader played by Paul Henreid.

\r\nThe film could be said to sum up America’s self-perception throughout the momentous conflict; a lone wolf, suspicious of European intrigues, it is forced by it’s own sense of morality to abandon personal safety for the greater good. Yet the film is more than just about America, or Americans abroad. It is stuffed to the brim with classic lines (“Here’s looking at you, kid.” “Round up the usual suspects.” ““I’m no good at being noble…”) which echo a sentiment that has passed into folklore as something more important than national borders or sabre-rattling. In a year of film-making that you might expect to have been filled with patriotic sentiment, the film plays like a grand tragedy, crossing borders and affecting all equally. If you haven’t already seen it, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.